Though the article still is not online (get it at your local newsstand!), I spoke with Bob Sirott on WGN Radio this week about Chicago magazine’s “What Chefs Know”listen to it here.


Like Navin Johnson getting the new phone book, we shout, “The Beard semifinalists are out!” It’s important to note that these are the longlist names, not the final nominees for James Beard Foundation awards. But it’s always a pleasure to see this first list because it will contain unexpected names of friends and admired places that the more buttoned-up final list probably won’t have. And because it gives clues as to how the Beard committees scope out our scene… which includes, clearly, keeping an eye on our own local award show, the Jean Banchet Awards. Win a Banchet, as Alisha Elenz of mfk./Bar Biscay did, and you have a good chance of turning up on the next Beard list (as she has two years running now).

So we’re delighted that Thattu, regional Indian in a food hall (and Banchet nominee for Counter Service) is a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, along with Tzuco. Others include Boka for Outstanding Restaurant, Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde for Outstanding Chef, Emily Spurlin of Lula Cafe for Outstanding Pastry Chef, and ten Chicago chefs/teams listed as semifinalists for Best Chef: Great Lakes, a diversity-strong list including Thai Dang (HaiSous), Brian Jupiter (Frontier), Gene Kato (Momotaro), Mariya Russell (who just won a Banchet) of Kikko, and Erick Williams (Virtue). (See the whole list at Eater here, although they count 19 total and the Tribune says 20, I guess counting John and Karen Shields of Smyth individually.) The surprise for Chicagoans is that pastry chef Jeanine Lamadieu, formerly of Yügen (she left in December), also landed on the Rising Star Chef list; I’d be curious how the Beard committee is hearing so much about that restaurant, which is little discussed locally.

Beyond the immediate area, cheers for Abra Berens of Granor farm and author of this book, who landed in Best Chef: Great Lakes, and to Wisconsin supper club classic The Hobnob, in Racine, named for Outstanding Hospitality. Anthony Todd has more insight here (“no omakase—take that, Michelin!”)


Bokeh, started by a photographer-slash-hospitality veteran, brings well-crafted cocktails to Albany Park, says Maggie Hennessy: “The namesake Bokeh elevates Fernet-Branca to a starring role in a minty, frothy suppressor sour with lemon and lime juices. Perhaps my favorite sipper, the Focal Length, pairs vegetal mezcal with tart and jammy cherry liqueur, a wine-based aperitif and grapefruit juice; a splash of cava lightens the load, lending the drink a lovely fuzzy texture.”

As for food, “We were happiest while noshing on the snacks of yesteryear, like springy deviled eggs tinged pink from beet juice and smoky bacon-wrapped shrimp, both of which were happy to play backup singers to the punchy cocktails.”


“The menu reads like the pantheon of tapas: various hams, croquettes, anchovies, olives, meatballs. Almost all we sampled outdid the average version without straying from the dish’s formula,” Graham Meyer says of New York import Boqueria. “Boqueria suits a boisterous colleague lunch or a work-break meet-up with friends, but less so any context where sharing plates gets awkward, like a less-familiar client.”

Buzz 2


At Chicago mag, Titus Ruscitti points those hungry for Mardi Gras food to Portage Park’s Junebug for a cup of gumbo: “At $5 for a cup and $8 for a bowl, it’s the perfect comfort food for a cold winter day. If you want to start your day with something sweet, or finish off a meal, Junebug offers baked treats and beignets fried fresh to order (three for $5).”

Meanwhile, at his own site, Titus gives a definitive disquisition on the places to get Tacos de Canasta in Chicago—remember you read it here first when there are tacos de canasta in food halls in River North in 2026—and he expresses admiration for JT’s Genuine Sandwiches’ takes on midwestern (and a little beyond) sandwiches: “The menu item drawing the biggest buzz from online food commenters is the Italian roast pork with greens. This is a nod to Philadelphia where locals love this sandwich as much if not more than the cheesesteak. I’ve had a roast pork from a couple of the famous Philly spots and it really is one of the best regional sandwiches in the world. It’s similar to Italian beef in that it’s thinly sliced roast pork that sits in a gravy and goes into a roll with provolone and comes served with or without broccoli rabe. You can get the sandwich dipped in the pork’s gravy if you like it wet. I’ve also had this sandwich at a few spots outside Philly and it’s never quite the same. JT’s gets credit for best effort of any of the spots outside the Philadelphia area.”


Steve Dolinsky takes a rare look at Guatemalan food in Chicago, focusing on two places offering pepian, a chicken stew similar to mole: “Tortillas, bread, tomatoes and onions are cooked, along with pasilla and guajillo chiles. Meanwhile sesame and pumpkin seeds are toasted to release their essential oils. Everything gets soaked in water, then pureed.”


Behind the food at Mundano, from ex-Quiote chef Ross Henke, there’s an ethos about being a new kind of kitchen culture, says Ashok Selvam at Eater: “In recent years, thanks to the #MeToo movement, more female restaurant workers have been more vocal about poor treatment and restaurant and bars. Henke wanted to do more. He brought in a former colleague at Quiote, Trista Baker, to help create policies that would benefit staffers. They’re working on vocabulary to help set boundaries, using phrases to help facilitate better communication between management and staff. Words have power in showing workers they won’t be ignored.”


A quarter century ago, Amy Morton and Debbie Gold worked together at Morton’s Mirador. Gold spent much of her career in Kansas City, where she won Best Chef Midwest in the James Beard awards in 1999, but now they got the band back together, says Anthony Todd, as Gold joins Morton’s restaurants (including Found and Stolp Island Social): “‘I’ve never been happier in my entire life,’ Morton says. ‘Literally, I walked into the restaurant and saw [Gold], and it was like all the time in between had totally collapsed.'”


What’s with the justice system in Chicago this week? First, Attila Gyulai, the Embeyezzler of Embeya, basically got off for stealing the investment of Thai Dang’s family in their restaurant and fleeing around the world; he was sentenced to time served, which was a mere five months for stealing an amount described as up to $300,000, of which he will have to pay back $125,000:

“I’m not here to say Mr. Gyulai is a hardened criminal or a terrible person,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Getter. Still, he noted, the restaurant’s former chef, Thai Dang, is continuing to make monthly $9,000 payments on the original bank loan for the restaurant.

Well, I’ll say it. He’s a terrible person! And we should all eat at HaiSous to help Dang, who apparently will be paying for Gyulai’s crimes longer than he will. More at the Sun-Times.

Worse yet is the highly suspicious business going on with a stabbing death outside Richard’s Bar, the famous clout-heavy police bar, known for the fact that local anti-smoking regulations don’t apply there. The story apparently is that an unnamed 30-year-old ex-Marine shouted a gay slur at a much slighter man, Kenny Paterimos, then stabbed Paterimos to death outside the bar. The ex-Marine was arrested but then released, and initially, no charges were filed as it was judged to be an act of self-defense (against what, no one seems to know). Meanwhile, the charming patrons at Richard have been making social media jokes about the killing, as Block Club Chicago reports. Finally, on Saturday night, a warrant was issued for the assailant’s arrest. A “Justice for Kenny” protest is planned outside the bar on Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if the police show up to preserve disorder…


A recent Twitter thread by Michael Nagrant included this:

If a restaurant is not ready to serve paying customers consistent high quality food the day they open, they shouldn’t open their doors.

Also no chef has ever not reshared critical praise that came on day 1 or if they gave someone free food or food at a half-baked preview. But if someone has anything critical to say, immediately they bust out “You came too early, we’re just starting to gel! Try in a few months.”

That being said, I’m not gonna review you on day 1 generally, but on service day 18, don’t tell me I visited too soon. You opened too soon.

It’s not spelled out who Nagrant was referencing—but it’s not exactly hard to guess when you look at the last place he reviewed. It’s hardly the first time chefs have complained about reviewers, um, reviewing their restaurants. Especially when the reviewers don’t come with a big brand name behind them but are just some guy whose only credential is just that he’s willing to write up his opinions and put himself out there. Who cares what you have to say, dude? You’re just a guy, not a…

…guy who happens to be making a minimal amount of money at some publication that can attract advertisers. (As if that’s the source of credibility on restaurant opinions—that American Express pays your bills.)

For that reason, I’m happy to see that Eater Chicago always includes Nagrant’s reviews in the reviewer roundup that Jeffy Mai does each week. They should—and they kind of have to, because if they didn’t, it’d just be that much thinner a professional reviewing scene they were rounding up, a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

And any chef who thinks, “Good! Maybe they can all go away!” is a damned fool. The heart of how good our food scene is is ambitious, talented chefs, but it’s also the audience for ambitious, talented chefs. And reviewers, food writers, real influencers (by which I mean not just people who instagram their dessert, but eaters with lots of followers who are known for their discernment) are the superdelegates of that scene, the ones with big votes that can sway crowds. Jay Rayner may wish we were all meaner about it, but generally speaking, we support what’s good and give a little Darwinian encouragement toward extinction for what isn’t. And that’s good for everybody who wants to see honest, real cooking given a chance over gimmicks.

So: serious reviewers, whether they have a big name affiliation or especially if they don’t, are a treasure. The old rules of waiting till you’re a month in to review are dead, not least because you’re inviting media in before then, but because Yelpers will be there anyway. The positive flipside of that is that the second month is no longer your one and only chance—people can write about you all through your business’s lifespan, if it’s interesting. People find your industry interesting enough to write about. Be glad about that, and support the good ones, even when it’s your oxtail entree getting gored.


Nothing big, lots of smaller things over the last couple of weeks…

I tried 016, the Serbian restaurant that Mike Sula reviewed last week—though only half-full, it felt like a place that was suddenly fuller than it was used to, and trying hard to keep up a level of service, which is to their credit. Anyway, the meat-heavy menu does include a feta dip with ajvar that is pungent and punchy, and a nice beet salad, but the focus is on things like grilled meatballs (a smoky standout) and pork loin stuffed with kajmar (cheese). A non-grilled item, a hunter stew, needed stronger seasoning. Amusingly, a woman liked the icon of St. Michael over our table so much, I think she wound up buying it (they waited till we were gone to take it down, though, if she did).

I went to a media event for Roots Pizza, which recruited several local chefs to make special pizzas (available at all locations for the next month and change). The theme was that several of them were inspired by soups, and I really liked Alisha Elenz’s beef borguignon pizza, a French onion soup inspired one by Oliver Poilevey of Le Bouchon, and Lamar Moore’s (non-soup) pimiento cheese and spicy sausage pizza. Check ’em out.

Also went to a media event for Pacino’s, a newish Italian restaurant in the Roosevelt Collection mall, from the owner of Isabella in the West Loop several years ago. Whenever I look at Open Table all I see are a million Italian restaurants I’ve never been to, so I’m trying to fill the gap a little; this one is strongly Sicilian, so things are spicy and rustic while the room itself is big, white and fairly upscale. If you need a place in that area—or a place that could host a big dinner—check it out, as it executes classics (grilled squid, tender short ribs buried in tomato sauce) quite well.

Felt like delivery sushi one night and had just noticed that a place called Green Tea Japanese Restaurant in Lincoln Park had followed me on Twitter. So I tried them and it was pretty good for delivery sushi!

Son wanted tortas, so I found a place called Torteria San Lenchito in Albany Park that does solid tortas (and some kind of doubtful ones, like a buffalo chicken torta). It hit the spot, not least because like a true Mexican comida, it started with like a bowl of vegetable soup and some chips with warm refried beans on them… this place is like a big hug.

Sparrow Black 2019